The Most Important Cultural Documentary of 2013

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"Girls to the front!"

It’s more than a command that conveniently doubles as a kitschy catchphrase. Kathleen Hanna meant it with all her heart. Even if you don’t know who she is, seeing static-washed footage of Hanna shouting this at an audience during an underground punk show still incites a wild jolt of intrigue. The Punk Singer, a new documentary by Sini Anderson, takes a look at the electrifying woman behind these words that stick and barb at you the instant you hear them.

The former frontwoman of punk band Bikini Kill, and later, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna is also widely known as a founder of Riot Grrrl, the underground punk-feminist fanzine that inspired an entire movement. The Punk Singer documents Hanna’s journey and how her fiery outspokenness indelibly made its mark on music, feminism and individuality in the 21st century. 

It may be a documentary, but this film shakes with passion beyond the lens. It’s quick, moving and packed with music, angst and Hanna’s stunning need and aptitude for expression, from her early days writing and performing slam poetry and sharing the stage with Nirvana to charging ahead of the ’90s grunge and punk scene with her own blistering ideas. The film tears down whatever misconceptions you may have had about the singular Riot Grrrl phenomena and replaces it with fascinating imagery and observations by the people who were there. With commentary by Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Gloria Steinhem and Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Bronwstein, the film divulges Hanna’s journey from a multi-faced perspective. More interesting still are the glimpses into the period by Hanna herself and her husband, Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys, as they reveal the crushing details of her battle with Lyme disease for the past five years. 

Even if punk and feminism don’t mean a thing to you, this is still one of the most important cultural films you can watch in 2013. Because hearing “Girls to the front” again, or for the first time, is a fresh, arresting and necessary challenge to all of us. One that raises the questions and ideas the Punk Singer fought so strongly for during a time when they have never been more relevant. 

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